The three challenges keeping cars from being fully autonomous

Understanding where we are in the pursuit of self-driving cars can be as confusing as understanding where we are in the pursuit of AI. Over the past few years, the flood of companies entering the space and the constant news updates have made it seem as if fully autonomous vehicles are just barely out of reach. The past couple weeks have been no different: Uber announced a new CEO and $1 billion investment for its self-driving unit, Waymo launched a ride-hailing app to open up its service to more riders in Phoenix, and Tesla unveiled a new custom AI chip that promises to unlock full autonomy.

But driverless vehicles have stayed in beta, and carmakers have wildly differing estimates of how many years we still have to go. In early April, Ford CEO Jim Hackett expressed a conservative stance, admitting that the company had initially “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles.” It still plans to launch its first self-driving fleet in 2021, but with significantly dialed-back capabilities. In contrast, Tesla’s chief, Elon Musk, bullishly claimed that self-driving technology will likely be safer than human intervention in cars by 2020. “I’d be shocked if it’s not next year at the latest,” he said.

I’m not in the business of prediction. But I recently sat down with Amnon Shashua, the CEO of Mobileye, to understand the challenges of reaching full autonomy. Acquired by Intel in 2017, the Israeli-based maker of self-driving tech has partnerships with more than two dozen carmakers and become one of the leading players in the space.

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Shashua presented challenges in technology, regulation, and business.

Building a safe car. From a technical perspective, Shashua splits driverless technology into two parts: its perception and its decision-making capabilities. The first challenge, he says, is to build a self-driving system that can perceivethe road better than the best human driver. In the US, the current car fatality rate is about one death per 1 million hours of driving. Without drunk driving or texting, the rate probably decreases by a factor of 10. Effectively that means a self-driving car’s perception system should fail, at an absolute maximum, once in every 10 million hours of driving.

But currently the best driving assistance systems incorrectly perceive something in their environment once every tens of thousands of hours, Shashua says. “We’re talking about a three-orders-of-magnitude gap.” In addition to improving computer vision, he sees two other necessary components to closing that gap. The first is to create redundancies in the perception system using cameras, radar, and lidar. The second is to build highly detailed maps of the environment to make it even easier for a car to process its surroundings.

Building a useful car. The second challenge is to build a system that can make reasonable decisions, such as how fast to drive and when to change lanes. But defining what constitutes “reasonable” is less a technical challenge than a regulatory one, says Shashua. Anytime a driverless car makes a decision, it has to make a trade-off between safety and usefulness. “I can be completely safe if I don’t drive or if I drive very slowly,” he says, “but then I’m not useful, and society will not want those vehicles on the road.” Regulators must therefore formalize the bounds of reasonable decision-making so that automakers can program their cars to act only within those bounds. This also creates a legal framework for evaluating blame when a driverless car gets into an accident: if the decision-making system did in fact fail to stay within those bounds, then it would be liable.

Building an affordable car. The last challenge is to create a cost-effective car, so consumers are willing to switch to driverless. In the near term, with the technology still at tens of thousands of dollars, only a ride-hailing business will be financially sustainable. In that context, “you are removing the driver from the equation, and the driver costs more than tens of thousands of dollars,” Shashua explains. But individual consumers would probably not pay a premium over a few thousand dollars for the technology. In the long term, that means if automakers intend to sell driverless passenger cars, they need to figure out how to create much more precise systems than exist today at a fraction of the cost. “So the robo-taxi—we’re talking about the 2021, 2022 time frame,” he says. “Passenger cars will come a few years later.”

Mobileye is now working to overcome these challenges on all fronts. It has been refining its perception system, creating detailed road maps, and working with regulators in China, the US, Europe, and Israel to standardize the rules of autonomous driving behavior. (And it’s certainly not alone: TeslaUber, and Waymo are all engaging in similar strategies.) The company plans to launch a driverless robo-taxi service with Volkswagen in Tel Aviv by 2022.

This story originally appeared in our Webby-nominated AI newsletter The Algorithm. To have it directly delivered to your inbox, sign up here for free.

Our commitments to the environment, today and every dayOur commitments to the environment, today and every day

Talking about the environment shouldn’t be limited to one day (or week) of the year, but this week Mother Earth deserves some extra recognition. Here’s a bit more about how we’re putting sustainability at the center of everything we build—and how our technology can help make businesses, communities, and our everyday lives more sustainable, too.

Steps toward a more sustainable futureSteps toward a more sustainable future

People perform trillions of searches on Google each year, upload hundreds of hours of videos to YouTube each minute, and receive more than 120 billion emails every week. Making all of these Google services work for everyone requires a lot of behind-the-scenes work, like operating a global network of data centers around the clock and manufacturing products for people around the world.

It’s not only our responsibility to build products and services that are fast and reliable for everyone, but also to make sure we do so with minimal impact to our planet. So this Earth Day, we’re taking inventory of the progress we’ve made when it comes to sustainability and where we plan to do more.

We’ve scaled up our use of renewable energy.  

  • In 2017, we hit a goal that we set five years earlier and matched 100 percent of the electricity consumption of our operations with purchases of renewable energy. This means that for each unit of energy we used that year, we purchased an equivalent unit of energy from a renewable source, such as wind or solar.

  • When we buy renewable energy, we only do so from projects that are constructed for Google. This helps us bring on new clean energy supply to the grids where we operate our facilities.

  • Today, a Google data center uses 50 percent less energy than a typical data center, while delivering seven times more computing power than we did five years ago.

  • We use AI to help safely run our data center cooling systems—already this has resulted in 30 percent energy savings.

  • We’re weaving circularity into our operations.  In our data centers, we use components from old servers to upgrade machines and build remanufactured machines with refurbished parts.

Being a mom is hard work. Becoming one is, too.Being a mom is hard work. Becoming one is, too.

For seven years, Mother’s Day was the worst day of the year for me. It was an observance that felt completely out of reach, yet commercially and socially it was a reminder that I couldn’t escape. I wanted to be a mom, but I was having trouble becoming one. For my husband and I, the inner walls of our bedroom became clinical, timed and invaded by fertility specialists. The outside world didn’t understand what we were going through—they saw us as a couple who decided to “take their time” to start a family. I began doing my own research and found out that 1 in 8 women in America are struggling, too. There are over 7 million of us who want a child but have a disease or other barrier that stands in our way.

Using Google and YouTube, I found support groups, blogs and resources. I wasn’t as alone as I thought—like many, I had been silent about my struggles with infertility. It’s a less-than-tasty casserole of heartache, injections and surgeries, failed adoption placements and financial devastation.

So I learned how to be my own advocate. I’ve spoken out, written articles and—most recently—lent my voice to the video above to raise awareness about the barriers to building a family. I want to better educate people on how to support their friends and family who are struggling with infertility.

As today marks the start of National Infertility Awareness Week, I—along with the other brave women in this video—am dedicated to sparking a bigger conversation, and overcoming the stigmas and barriers that surround infertility. I’m excited Google is using its platform to help put this message out into the world ahead of Mother’s Day. I hope that this year, even one more person out there will realize they’re not alone.

Go green with your Google AssistantGo green with your Google Assistant

It can be hard to know how to chip in and make a difference to protect the environment. You can recycle, take shorter showers, or carpool to work—and now you can lower your carbon footprint just by asking your Google Assistant.

With new advancements in smart home technology, it’s actually pretty easy to incorporate energy and water-saving actions into your daily routine (and save some money while you’re at it). This Earth Day, we’re sharing a few ways the Assistant can help make your home more environmentally-friendly.

Simple ways to save energy and automate

  1. Switch to LEDs. Swapping out just five incandescent bulbs with LED lights can save you up to $75 per year—plus, LEDs also last up to 50 times longer than incandescents, with a total life of at least 35,000 hours. Even better, pairing ENERGY STAR-certified smart bulbs like Philips Hue with the Assistant can help you control the lights with just your voice, or set lighting schedules to use electricity only when you need it.

  2. Choose ENERGY STAR certified appliances. Did you know that appliances contribute to a quarter of your home’s energy use? To optimize how that energy is used, choose an ENERGY STAR-certified brand like LG, GE Appliances, Samsung or Whirlpool, and connect it with Google Assistant to easily control appliances like refrigerators, dishwashers, ovens and air purifiers. Certain window air conditioning units and ceiling fans also work with the Google Assistant: Just say, “Hey Google, turn off the fan” to a Haiku fan as you leave a room or schedule your LG, Midea or Toshiba AC to turn off at the same time each day.

  3. Upgrade your thermostat. Many utilities offer rebates on smart thermostats because they make saving energy easy. Smart thermostats like the Nest Learning Thermostat can save an average of $131 to $145 a year (of course, individual savings are not guaranteed). That’s because Nest thermostats make smart, automatic temperature adjustments to save energy based on your habits. And you can even say “Hey Google, set the thermostat to eco mode” to make your home even more efficient.

  4. Monitor and protect from leaks. According to the EPA, the average family can lose 9,400 gallons of water annually from household leaks alone. To curb this waste, you can use leak detectors like LeakSmart, or install Flo by Moen to immediately get notifications if pipes leak, and use the Assistant to shut off the water.

  5. Curb your outdoor water use: You can still keep your lush lawn looking beautiful while using less water. Smart sprinkler systems like the Rachio 3 Smart Sprinkler Controller reduce water usage and now work with the Assistant, so you can easily control and monitor these systems with simple voice commands. As part of your Routine, you can also set the sprinklers for early morning or at night to prevent evaporation. We’re also adding support for Rain Bird’s family of Irrigation Controllers in the coming weeks.

How to set up everything with the Assistant

Download the Google Assistant or Google Home app and then click “Add device.” You can get started right away with commands like “Hey Google, turn down the temperature” with your Nest Thermostat. Or set up quick Routines that can help you automate energy savings by controlling multiple devices with a single command.

Our commitment to supporting families and the environment  

There are lots of changes we can make as individuals to combat climate change, but we’re taking steps as a company to reduce energy in U.S. households, too. The Power Project is our pledge to bring one million Nest thermostats to low income families by 2023. Along with a coalition of partners—nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and the National Housing Trust and energy companies like Georgia Power— we’ve installed Nest thermostats in homes over the last year to help families reduce their energy costs. This year, the Power Project is expanding to include partners Philips Hue and Whirlpool. Along with Nest, they’ll donate thousands of energy-saving technology products to Habitat for Humanity in the coming year. You can join us in providing energy-saving technology to those who need it most in your community by donating to nonprofits at

Making consistent changes to reduce energy consumption in our day-to-day lives is the key to long-term conservation; even the smallest changes add up to measurable impact. With Google Assistant and the right energy-saving technology, these changes are easier to make than ever.

Empathy Mapping for Marketing Content: What It Is and How to Do It Well

Have you noticed that the best books and movies are so totally immersive you feel as if you’ve actually entered the world they depict? Which is why I’d argue that the people most skilled in content aren’t necessarily the best writers; rather, they’re the ones who are able to empathize with characters so well that their creations seem real.

When writing for marketing, you need to connect with your audience. But first you have to understand who they are and what they care about. That’s where empathy mapping comes in.

What Is an Empathy Map?

An empathy map is a tool that brings to light to your most likely customers. It teaches you how to connect with the people who will consume your content, products, or services.

Typically divided into quadrants of say, think, do, and feel, the empathy map is intended to get into the head—and heart—of the customer. It helps you to visualize that what someone says doesn’t always align with what they do. That’s why it’s also important to understand what they think and feel.

For example, someone might say they love the service you provide, yet still shun your products. Could it be that the cost is too high, and in their social circles that may not be something they’re willing to say? Or maybe they feel passionately about your products but think the purchase isn’t practical.

Unfortunately, those conflicting “boxes” in the empathy map are the norm: Human life is rife with examples of cognitive dissonance that make little sense if you think purchase decisions follow the 19th century buyer funnel of attention-interest-desire-action. They don’t.

Which is all the more reason to really understand what might motivate your users.

Interestingly, empathy maps are already common in the design industry. Tech experts in user experience and agile design use empathy maps to help them enhance user satisfaction. Whether they design new products, software, or websites, they want to come as close to what the user wants as possible—so they try to empathize with them.

If the tech experts get it, why don’t the rest of us?

Because digital allows us to measure the success of every piece of content we create and disseminate, even the most naturally empathetic writers among us may have shifted away from our instincts. We want our videos, pages, and posts to rank. We want to please the Google gods and all their algorithmic updates.

But, the thing is, Google’s goal has always been to act more human. Every algorithm is another effort to provide users with the best experience possible.

It’s time to get back to human. And empathy mapping can help.

How to Get Started

Set some goals

But not just your own goals.

Sure, you need to know that this empathy mapping exercise has a purpose. And like every business class ever taught you, your goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Now consider the single user or the group of users you will target with your map, the action you want them to take, and how you might best get there. But if the goal of empathy mapping is to empathize (and it is), then the goals you should really consider are those of your audience:

  • What about your content will appeal to users?
  • What is it about your product that is uniquely suited to accomplish their goals?
  • What do they care about?
  • Who are they?

There’s so much you can do with content to give users a better experience, and it’s not just about the actual content. How you produce it matters, as well.

For example, did you know that up to 43 million Americans are dyslexic? Create blog posts that are visually easy to read, and you make them more accessible to those readers. Include easy headers, bold font, and simple-to-digest paragraphs. It helps millions of people get your content. Bonus: it’s sound SEO practice.

Gather data

Ah, data is involved! No wonder techies use empathy maps.

Pull data from multiple sources:

  • Start with Google Analytics to learn the demographics and psychographics of people who come to your website and consume your content.
  • To infer user intent, use Google Search Console to see the keywords that get you clicks. And be cognizant about where in the buyer journey those users are.
  • Do you advertise on Facebook? The platform’s Audience Insights offers a trove of data.
  • And tools that help you measure SEO success (like SEMrush) help you see what your competitors are doing for their SEO.
  • Get granular and pull actual customer data from your own CRM.
  • Then move onto broader insights: Look at national consumer trends for your products. Google’s Consumer Barometer tool is an easy place to start, but don’t neglect economic trends and the info you can find in trade magazines and industry publications.

The more data you have, the more you can understand your consumer and where they fit—in the empathy map and in the larger world.

Build from your current personas

If you’re selling anything to anyone, you’ve probably already built out a way to market to them. And that usually involves creating buyers personas. There’s no need to trash good work. Take a critical look at what you already know about your ideal consumer and how they interact with your content and build upon it.

Add Anecdotal Evidence

Understanding the story behind your users is the whole point of empathy mapping, so speak to your actual customers. Perform interviews, enlist researchers, conduct surveys. Ask questions about who they are, where they’re from, and, most importantly, why they do the things they do, especially when it comes to what they choose to read, view, and buy. And make sure to talk to the people who talk to your customers. What do your salespeople say? What about customer service reps? Listen to their stories and add them to your empathy mapping.

Fill in Your Map

Or maps. Much like you don’t have a single buyer persona, you may produce multiple maps over time. Take all that data and put the information in the appropriate boxes/quadrants. Here’s how the Interaction Design Foundation outlines that process:

  • What do they say? Write down important quotes and keywords potential customers used.
  • What do they do? Describe their actions and behaviors.
  • What do they think? What might they be thinking? What are their motivations, goals, needs, desires? What does all that say about their values and beliefs?
  • How do they feel? What emotions might they be feeling? Consider their body language, their choice of words, their tone of voice.

When filling out the map, don’t get mucked up in the details. If you’re not sure if a data point is a “think” or a “feel,” just pick one. This exercise is more art than science. What you’re trying to do is immerse yourself in the user’s world—much like you’re able to do in those great movies and books.

Here’s an example of a completed empathy map from the Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g):

Draw Some Conclusions

Actually, you’re not looking for conclusions so much as hypotheses about your users.

Take the retrospective information you gathered from your mapping exercise, and build out prospective mapping. You’re in their world now, so imagine what-if scenarios that connect your users to your content.

What story can you tell that will appeal to them? What kind of content can you produce to engage, educate, and entertain?

Those Discover credit card commercials have the right idea with their “We treat you like you’d treat you” tagline. Genius! And how empathy works.

Share Your Mapping

Empathy maps are great tools for creating great content. But they’re also important for those people in Sales and Customer Service. Oh, and Product Development!

Don’t hoard all the valuable information you’ve discovered about your customers. Spread the news companywide.

Iterate and Improve

You’re not done. Empathy maps should continually evolve as you gather more information and insight. Review your maps on a quarterly basis. Tweak, add, improve.

How to Integrate Influencer and Emotional Marketing to Improve Your Content Program

As marketers in the Age of Digital, we are moving at the speed of digital without the chance to assess patterns and think deeply about our work. Meanwhile, consumers’ devices are constantly bombarded with marketing clutter and meaningless ads that don’t take the time to understand consumers’ needs or preferences.

As it always has, our success as marketers stems from using emotional marketing to focus on consumers’ needs and preferences in order to capitalize in our markets. However, although emotional marketing is a powerful approach, it cannot stand alone; it needs to be integrated within marketing channels and tactics.

With the emergence of influencer marketing as an important trend, part of our job as marketers in 2019 is to pair emotional marketing with influencer marketing so that we can better target and reach our desired audiences.

Let’s review how you can integrate emotional and influencer marketing into your content marketing program this year and beyond.

What is emotional marketing?

Emotional marketing is an method that’s driven by your target audiences’ feelings and values. It involves connecting with your audience through a captivating story that aligns with their beliefs. Those connections are critical, considering that emotional responses influence intention to buy much more than the ad’s content itself, research shows.

But what does emotional marketing entail?

It starts with defining values that your brand was established upon and using those principles to make connections with your customers.

Whether you’re looking to play up industry trends, target a specific demographic, or mention the latest social or political movements in your messaging, find something that resonates with the people you’d like to reach.

Don’t get too personal, but do understand how they feel.

Across the customer journey, each stage reflects a different stage of emotion. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind:

  • Evaluation of your product/service. Emotionally, they’re still not sold on your brand quite yet. How can you get them emotionally involved at this stage of consideration? Here are three tips:

    1. Employee advocacy. Getting customers on board starts internally: Nobody knows your brand better than the people who live and breathe it every day. Let your employees be part of the potential customer’s evaluation process.

    2. Demos. The proof is in the pudding. Nothing speaks to the quality of your product or service better than a demonstration, and this is the perfect time to respond any questions or concerns.

    3. Influencers. Hearing validation from someone with influence has a powerful psychological effect. We’ll dive deeper into influencers later on.

  • Purchase. In this stage, customers are feeling good about their choice—but not great (yet). They might have some anxiety about the commitment or feel that risk is associated with the product. Make them feel confident that they made the right decision and ensure you’re their trusted brand for life.
  • Decided not to purchase. In this stage, they either delayed or went another route. Emotionally, they may be on the fence or have another vendor on a short list. Stay connected, remain positive, and outline your brand’s unique selling proposition.
  • Loyalty/advocacy. Keep them active and excited about the brand. Building loyal advocates who rave about your brand will produce a positive return on investment: 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising, research from Nielsen finds.

Emotional marketing helps you become their friend, their confidant, their go-to brand. Most important, your efforts should be geared toward being memorable.

Leverage influencers

But how can you make sure your brand is the one everyone’s talking about in today’s competitive environment? Here’s where influencer marketing comes into play.

According to influencer marketing expert Linqia, 86% of marketers reported using influencer marketing in 2017, and 92% of those respondents said it was effective.

Using influencers to represent your brand allows you to take a more personal approach to engaging with your customers—especially if your personas line up with the influencer’s intent and interests.

For example, what industry events are you planning to attend in 2019? Have you considered investigating which influencers will be there, or what they’ll be discussing? Events are the perfect opportunity to make connections with influencers. To get your foot in the door, find a way to relate your brand’s current services or initiatives with those influencers’ passions.

Once you’ve successfully connected with those influencers and they’ve endorsed your product or service, your brand is positioned to build emotional connections with customers. Your next step is to humanize your brand through interactions with those influencers across channels.

Content is a wonderful asset for ensuring your influencer relationships are influencing the behavior of your audience: Q&As, blog posts, roundtables, webinars—whether demand gen activities or earned media efforts—these valuable connections should be leveraged across channels that drive intent.

Incorporate emotional and influencer marketing into your content program

Creating emotional connections involves aligning your influencer marketing efforts with your content marketing program. Nothing will hit home for your customers more than a piece of content that brings your brand down to earth. That process can start at a basic level: having a conversation. Initiating conversations with your influencers will automatically familiarize their followers with your brand—increasing your reach and expanding awareness in a seemingly natural fashion.

From there, learn to fully integrate those influencers into your content program. The following four tactics will help you do that:

  1. Events and webinars. Use influencers to bring brand awareness via demand gen activities. This type of content is rich with potential and can help you target your ideal prospects.
  2. Twitter chat. This is the most direct way to have a conversation with your influencers and showcase your thought leadership on a topic. It is also a great way to engage members of your audience who may be listening in. And, who knows, you may pick up a batch of new followers along the way.
  3. Guest blog series. (Emphasis on “series.”) The more your influencers are associated with your brand, the more their followers will become emotionally invested. To prove consistency and authenticity, challenge your influencers to commit to a blog series rather than a one-off piece of content. (Bonus: A paid influencer strategy is much cheaper when you pay by the “bundle”—in case you weren’t already sold on the series idea.)
  4. Live video/podcast. Nothing says “I believe in your brand” more than publishing live conversations with your influencers on your social channels. Plus, according to research, social videos generate 1,200% more shares than text and images combined. Sounds like a no-brainer.

Learning how to seamlessly combine emotional and influencer marketing will be challenging, but the rewards will be invaluable. Both techniques will become incredible resources for starting conversations with your customers and create a sense of brand validation that can’t be found anywhere else.

Figuring out the pattern of your customers and emotionally connecting with them at specific stages of the journey will be the most difficult task to conquer. It comes with a commitment to truly understanding your buyers, personalizing the experience, and taking the time to nurture the relationship every step of the way. Advocacy doesn’t happen overnight—it takes years to establish.

So, are you ready to emotionally invest in your marketing efforts?

South Korea: What a nuclear waste

Three days after a tsunami battered the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was celebrating. It was March 14, 2011, and he was in the United Arab Emirates, on a dusty, featureless stretch of desert 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the nearest village. Lee was presiding over a groundbreaking ceremony for a construction project that the two countries said marked the start of a “hundred-year friendship.” A retinue of dark-suited South Korean officials and Emirati dignitaries in flowing white thawbs toured the site. Then Lee and the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed smiled and posed for photographs on a red carpet.

Two years earlier, a South Korean consortium had won an $18.6 billion contract to build four nuclear reactors on the ground where Lee now stood—at the time, the single biggest reactor deal in history. The plant—named Barakah, after the Arabic word for a divine blessing—was a personal triumph for Lee, who had reportedly swung the deal with a desperate 11th-hour phone call to bin Zayed, and a victory for his country, whose Korea Electric Power Corporation, Kepco, had led the bid and won out against more experienced French competition. It made for a great underdog story. A small, resource poor nation that relied heavily on imported energy, South Korea had kick-started its nuclear program in the 1970s by buying reactors on turnkey contracts from Canada, France, and the United States. But Kepco and its nuclear affiliate, KHNP, quickly developed their own model based on an American design. The first homegrown reactor was operational by 1995, and more soon followed. Eventually South Korea, which is roughly the size of Indiana, became the most reactor-dense country in the world, with 23 reactors providing about 30% of its total electricity generation. The Emiratis had been impressed.

More was at stake in the UAE than just South Korea’s national pride, however. What the country was doing could help solve the climate crisis. While renewable-energy production has grown dramatically, many scientists, engineers, and environmental activists believe a nuclear power system is the only truly scalable alternative to fossil fuels. Yet over the years the high capital costs, uncertain profits, and safety concerns associated with nuclear power have discouraged investors and led governments back to cheaper, dirtier fuel sources like coal and gas.

The French state-owned company Areva, for example, had a project in Finland that was already billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. The US’s $6.8 billion Watts Bar Unit 1 reactor in Tennessee had taken 23 years to complete, and cost more than 18 times its original $370 million price tag. Areva had bid for the Barakah project, but its $36 billion proposal was reportedly almost twice as high as Kepco’s. The Korean bid rekindled the hope that nuclear could be clean, safe, and cheap enough to replace fossil fuels.

Mike Mcquade

How did Kepco manage it? Lee Hee-yong, a former Kepco executive who had led the bid, told me the key was repetition—building to the same template over and over, rather than designing customized plants each time as was typical. This increased expertise and efficiency, and the result was lower prices. “Prior to the UAE deal, we had been continuously building reactors for the past 30 or 40 years,” he told me in the office of his two-person boutique energy consultancy in Seoul. “The fact that we maintained a strong supply chain and network of specialized workers was key to keeping costs low.”

The timing of the UAE deal was auspicious: France and Canada were stagnating as civil nuclear powers, says Howard Neilson-Sewell, a Canadian nuclear industry veteran and advisor to the Barakah project. “South Korea was right on the cusp of taking over the world market.”

Not anymore. Less than a decade after Barakah broke ground, Korea is dismantling its nuclear industry, shutting down older reactors and scrapping plans for new ones. State energy companies are being shifted toward renewables. Lee’s legacy has collapsed, and the hope that Seoul’s nuclear program could help combat climate change has dwindled to nothing.

So what went wrong? Critics blame politics, ideology, and environmental idealism. The reality: greed, corruption, and scandal. It’s a reminder that the grandest plans for fighting climate change can fall prey to simple human venality.

Disaster strikes

Watching Fukushima was a tremendous shock, especially because I live next to a nuclear power plant myself,” Kim Ik-joong told me when we met earlier this year at a coffee shop close to the headquarters of one of Seoul’s most renowned civic-rights groups. Activists of various stripes were gathered around us, talking animatedly, and some came over to greet him: Kim, 59, is one of the country’s best-known antinuclear campaigners. Charismatic and well-spoken, he was originally a microbiology professor at Dongguk University but has become the face of the antinuclear movement as a prolific lecturer and pundit on the evening news.

Up until the Fukushima disaster, that movement had been limited to a scattered assortment of local groups. The crisis in Japan brought things closer to home. It “just didn’t feel like someone else’s business,” says Kim.

Kim himself grew particularly uneasy about the overcrowding of South Korea’s reactors, which are mostly packed into a narrow strip along the densely populated southeastern coast. The density was a way of cutting costs on administration and land acquisition. But putting reactors close to one another—and to large cities—was risky.

“An accident at just one of these plants would be far more devastating than Fukushima,” says Kim. “These reactors are dangerously close to major industrial areas, and there are four million people living within a 30-kilometer radius of the Kori plant alone.” Hyundai’s auto plant in Ulsan, a city of 1.2 million, is just 20 km from the nearest nuclear power plant. Fukushima, by comparison, had only around 78,000 people living within the same distance.

Kim’s cause found political support. In 2012, Moon Jae-in, who was running for president, personally recruited him to his energy policy team. Moon had recently announced a nuclear phase-out as a campaign pledge. Kim felt an affinity to Moon: both of their hometowns stood in the shadow of a nuclear power plant.

“He had done a lot of research on the issue himself, and already had very firm personal convictions about exiting nuclear,” Kim says with a smile. “Back then, there were still a lot of people in [Moon’s] Democratic Party who were against a nuclear-exit policy, so Moon made the announcement in Japan, away from anybody who would try to dissuade him.”

However, Moon lost the 2012 election to Park Geunhye, the conservative successor to Lee Myung-bak. (South Korean presidents can serve only a single term.) Park continued Lee’s nuclear expansion policy, pledging to increase South Korea’s reactor fleet to 39 units by 2035 and making sales trips to potential client states such as the Czech Republic and Saudi Arabia.

But rumors started swirling that the UAE deal had come with a number of compromising provisions. The most serious allegation was that Lee had secured the project by secretly promising armed support to Abu Dhabi in the event of a military conflict. In 2011, South Korea did begin deploying special forces to the UAE, but Lee denied any connection.

It was a sign that South Korea’s nuclear success might not just be a simple story of efficiency and expertise.

A shocking discovery

On September 21, 2012, officials at KHNP had received an outside tip about illegal activity among the company’s parts suppliers. By the time President Park had taken office, an internal probe had become a full-blown criminal investigation. Prosecutors discovered that thousands of counterfeit parts had made their way into nuclear reactors across the country, backed up with forged safety documents. KHNP insisted the reactors were still safe, but the question remained: was corner-cutting the real reason they were so cheap?

korea energy economics institute

Park Jong-woon, a former manager who worked on reactors at Kepco and KHNP until the early 2000s, believed so. He had seen that taking shortcuts was precisely how South Korea’s headline reactor, the APR1400, had been built.

Where they’re located
Most of South Korea’s nuclear reactors are clustered in its densely populated southeast.

world nuclear association

After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, most reactor builders had tacked on a slew of new safety features.KHNP followed suit but later realized that the astronomical cost of these features would make the APR1400 much too expensive to attract foreign clients.

“They eventually removed most of them,” says Park, who now teaches nuclear engineering at Dongguk University. “Only about 10% to 20% of the original safety additions were kept.”

Most significant was the decision to abandon adding an extra wall in the reactor containment building—a feature designed to increase protection against radiation in the event of an accident. “They packaged the APR1400 as ‘new’ and safer, but the so-called optimization was essentially a regression to older standards,” says Park. “Because there were so few design changes compared to previous models, [KHNP] was able to build so many of them so quickly.”

Having shed most of the costly additional safety features, Kepco was able to dramatically undercut its competition in the UAE bid, a strategy that hadn’t gone unnoticed. After losing Barakah to Kepco, Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon likened the Korean unit to a car without airbags and seat belts. When I told Park this, he snorted in agreement. “Objectively speaking, if it’s twice as expensive, it’s going to be about twice as safe,” he said. At the time, however, Lauvergeon’s comments were dismissed as sour words from a struggling rival.

By the time it was completed in 2014, the KHNP inquiry had escalated into a far-reaching investigation of graft, collusion, and warranty forgery; in total, 68 people were sentenced and the courts dispensed a cumulative 253 years of jail time. Guilty parties included KHNP president Kim Jong-shin, a Kepco lifer, and President Lee Myung-bak’s close aide Park Young-joon, whom Kim had bribed in exchange for “favorable treatment” from the government.

Several faulty parts had also found their way into the UAE plants, angering Emirati officials. “It’s still creating a problem to this day,” Neilson-Sewell, the Canadian advisor to Barakah, told me. “They lost complete faith in the Korean supply chain.”

The scandals, however, were not over.

Another whistleblower

Earlier this year, at a small bakery in Seoul, I met Kim Min-kyu. A slight 44-year-old man with earnest, youthful eyes, Kim used to be a senior sales manager at Hyosung Heavy Industries, a manufacturer of reactor parts. In 2010, he was put in charge of selling to KHNP and quickly discovered that double-dealing was as routine as paperwork. 

“Suppliers who were supposed to be competing with one another colluded to decide who would win [KHNP bids],” Kim told me. “You’d have a group of white-haired executives from competing firms sitting across from each other, playing rock-paper-scissors to decide who would take certain contracts.” Dummy bids would then be supported by fake documents, doctored to ensure that the designated loser would fail. On one occasion, he says, an irate KHNP procurement manager called him to point out an amateurish forgery in a fake bidding document—and demanded he do it again, properly.

Some of these practices constituted serious lapses in safety. In May 2014, Kim oversaw the delivery of 11 load center transformers bound for the Hanul Nuclear Power Plant in North Gyeongsang province, only to discover that their safety licenses hadn’t been renewed. Load center transformers manage the flow of power to key emergency functions at reactors; any malfunction, Kim told me, would be “like a hurtling car suddenly stalling.”

Yet a secret agreement between Hyosung and competitors had designated it the winner, and the transformers were installed into two reactors, their integrity unquestioned. “I personally knew of around 300 cases where those transformers caught on fire. They’re incredibly unstable,” says Kim, his brow furrowed. “My hometown is actually just a few kilometers from those reactors, and an accident there could endanger my relatives who live nearby.”

In 2015, fearing a Fukushima-like accident, Kim decided to report the corruption through his company’s internal whistleblowing system. The only result was that he was fired.

“How naïve I was,” he says, flashing a rueful grin. He eventually went to the country’s competition regulator, which referred the case to prosecutors. In 2018, he took his story to the media. A few months later, on the basis of tips from Kim, prosecutors charged six employees from Hyosung and co-conspirator LS Industrial Systems with collusion—an outcome that Kim believes only scratches the surface of the corruption.

More untruths soon came to light. In 2018, after years of government denial, former defense minister Kim Taeyoung admitted that the rumors about the military side agreement with the UAE were, in fact, true: he had overseen it himself in a desperate attempt to seal the Barakah deal. “There was low risk of a dangerous situation arising, and even if it did, we believed that our response could be flexible,” he told South Korean media. “In the event of an actual conflict, I figured that we would ask for parliamentary ratification then.”

Mike Mcquade

Moon rising

In September 2016, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake—the strongest recorded tremor in South Korea’s history—struck the southeastern city of Gyeongju. Kim Ik-joong, the antinuclear activist, lives in the city and remembers being shocked by the rattling windows and blaring emergency sirens. He fled to a nearby rice paddy, and when he returned home several hours later, a sinking anxiety set in. Gyeongju was the heart of the world’s largest cluster of nuclear reactors, with its own plant and two more in adjoining Busan and Ulsan. The quake confirmed Kim’s fears: the seismic faults underneath the reactors were more earthquake-prone than previously thought. The next morning, on a visit to the nearby Wolsong plant, officials assured Kim and his politician friend Moon Jae-in that no damage had been done, but Kim couldn’t shake the feeling that the problem was being ignored.

“When I first started campaigning against nuclear power, KHNP managers told me that an earthquake greater than a magnitude of 5.0 would never happen in South Korea,” he says. “But there it was.” Several days after his visit to the Wolsong plant, Kim discovered that one of the plant’s seismographs had been broken for years.

Though South Korean law requires seismic fault assessments of any potential reactor site prior to construction, Kim says that the statute’s vague wording and loose enforcement have rendered it ineffective. “South Korea still hasn’t done a comprehensive capable fault assessment,” says Kim. “Earthquake risk wasn’t sufficiently accounted for at all in reactor site selection.” In fact, South Korea’s first comprehensive fault map was only started in 2017 and is expected to take until 2041 to complete.

The corruption scandal and earthquake stoked public appetite for Moon Jae-in’s policy of nuclear exit. But the coup de grâce was delivered by the failings of the industry’s political champions themselves.

Park Geun-hye’s presidency fell apart in 2017 as a much larger corruption scandal was uncovered. Accused of receiving bribes from the nation’s top conglomerates and abusing her presidential power, she was impeached on March 10, 2017, and sentenced to 24 years in prison in April 2018. Lee Myung-bak met a similar fate just months later: found guilty of bribery and embezzlement, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Data from 2017.

international atomic energy agency

Moon took office shortly after Park’s impeachment, and he has held fast to his promise of a nuclear exit. 

“The current phase-out policy stemmed from the four foundational principles we proposed at the time [of the 2012 campaign],” says Kim Ik-joong. “Older reactors wouldn’t receive life-span extensions; no additional reactors would be built; electricity use would be made more efficient; and we would shift toward renewables.”

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The phase-out will take 60 years. Two new reactors that were already halfway completed when Moon took office are still scheduled to come online by 2022 and 2023, and those in operation now will live out their lifetimes. Meanwhile, the administration continues to court potential buyers like the Czech Republic and Saudi Arabia. But there has been no boom: in fact, while Lee promised to export 80 reactors, so far South Korea has yet to export a single one.

Moon’s critics, many of them still adherents of the disgraced presidents Lee and Park, have denounced the phase-out as “ideological”—a deliberate reversal of his predecessors’ accomplishments for political purposes. Yet the country’s shrinking appetite for nuclear suggests a deeper disillusionment.

“On principle, I don’t trust anything that KHNP built,” says Kim Min-kyu, the corruption whistleblower. More and more South Koreans have developed a general mistrust of what they refer to as “the nuclear mafia”— the close-knit pro-nuclear complex spanning KHNP, academia, government, and monied interests. Meanwhile the government watchdog, the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission, has been accused of revolving door appointments, back-scratching, and a disregard for the safety regulations it is meant to enforce.

A decade after it began, Lee Myung-bak’s dream of South Korean nuclear ascendency seems to have finally sputtered out. A similar reversal is beginning in China, until recently seen as nuclear energy’s biggest champion. There, as in South Korea, Fukushima awakened public fears and forced the government to adopt tougher safety standards, which now threaten to push the cost of nuclear power out of reach. Of the world’s other major producers of nuclear power, only Russia is still aggressively building more reactors both at home and abroad. The decline of Korea’s nuclear industry may have had prosaic domestic causes, but its effect on the fight against climate change may be very global indeed.

From kids’ music to the tech world, without missing a beatFrom kids’ music to the tech world, without missing a beat

Matan Ariel’s young nieces and nephew live on the other side of the world, but they keep up with their uncle thanks to his music—and thanks to Google, too. Though they live in Israel and he lives in New York, the three kids love to ask the Google Assistant to play his songs, which have gone double platinum in their country.

Matan, or “Uncle Matani” as they call him, works in sales in Google’s New York office. But he also has another love, children’s music, which brought him a level of success he never expected before he headed to Google.

He first started singing full-time during his three years serving in the Israeli military. He was part of an entertainment unit for the navy, traveling from base to base to perform at various ceremonies, whether they were celebrations or memorials or something in between. “Think about it as a cover band for Israeli pop songs,” he says. “It was a range of different performances.”

It was during his years in the navy that he decided to record children’s music. Some people in his entertainment unit were babysitters on the side, and they lamented the lack of quality songs for kids. Matan took action, setting up time in a recording studio and coming up with a plan to record as Matan Ariel & Friends. They chose classic Hanukkah songs, since they were in the public domain, and recorded the album immediately after their service officially ended.

Visit the U.S. National Parks in Google EarthVisit the U.S. National Parks in Google Earth

Each spring, the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation dedicate a week to celebrating the protected spaces in our communities. Today, we’re bringing the national parks to you in a Google Earth guided tour through 31 different parks around the country.

From the breathtaking vistas of the Shenandoah Valley to the awe-inspiring hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, the National Parks allow us to truly experience the natural wonders of our country. Start with the pink granite formations of Otter Cliff in Maine’s Acadia National Park, then head west to explore the ancient Pueblo dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Finally, complete your journey with a peek through the North Window arch in Utah’s Arches National Park.